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Published: 2004/04/18
by Jesse Jarnow

Phish, Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV- 4/17

FROM THE TOURING DESK: With Meaningless Excitement

House of Spacefuzz
Los Angeles, California

Everything was frayed during Phish’s last night in Las Vegas. The band’s old songs, once a source of puzzlebox beauty and underscored by their seamless playing, revealed their all-too-intricate constructions as the quartet once again blew transitions (“You Enjoy Myself”) and forgot verses (“Tweezer”), The band’s newer songs, the numbers they should be able to play in their
sleep (and, in fact, the ones they should be dreaming about), also fell prey to disheartening sloppiness. Both “Pebbles and Marbles” and “Friday,” from 2002’s Round Room, seemed to move towards the band’s collectively decaying memory, without much yet to replace them.

But, there Phish was, trying their damndest to put on a good show, and darned if they didn’t succeed at being entertaining, if frustrating. Guitarist Trey Anastasio called out some of the songbook’s ostensible heavy hitters – “Tweezer,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Ghost,” “David Bowie,” and “Piper” – in an attempt to find access to the kind of deep improvisation that the band is good at it. They rarely found it, though they tried several strategies of getting there. Many of the jams moved towards impossibly quiet “peaks.” “Piper” slowed down to near-ambience twice, as did “Bowie.” Once there, though, the band had trouble hanging on, and fell back towards safer, more groove-oriented territory.

Indeed, almost all of the evening’s extended jams had the band finding a tempo and a dynamic and staying with it. In most cases, such as the winding “Pebbles and Marbles,” this was punctuated by high-speed, rapid-fire runs from Anastasio. In places, the band grooved with fair lifelessness, drummer Jon Fishman seeming disinterested in straying from mid-tempo funk. “Simple,” too, stuck with one groove, albeit more successfully: an ultra-delicate circular plink reminiscent of the rendition on Hampton Comes Alive.

The problem, it would seem, is that the band is still learning how to exist in the manner they do now — playing a cluster of three or four shows every three or four months. It’s a weird way to run a band, and it seems as if Phish will continue like this for the foreseeable future (their summer tour, as announced, is made up of an eight-night run and a five-night run). Phish built their reputation (not to mention their prowess) by touring constantly, year in and year out. During those tours, they were allowed to develop a repertoire — to try out new songs, fresh ideas, silly stage routines, and lots of other stuff that, in time, mutated into inside jokes. Though there’s nothing technically preventing them from doing so, the group doesn’t repeat things from night-to-night during one of their multi-show stands. This means that, even if they have a song they are excited about, chances are that it will only get played five or six times a year, tops.

What does Phish want? What, for that matter, does the audience want? Is it the same thing? Does it matter? Is Phish obligated to do anything, to play anything, to be anything? Whatever the hell’s going on, Phish can’t continue to play like they did on the first and last nights in Las Vegas and expect to be taken seriously. “You Enjoy Myself” is a perfect example. The composed sections – once the crown jewels in Anastasio’s considerable bag – were played without confidence. After an amusing muck-up during his half of the trampoline dance, Anastasio proceeded to goof around for the remainder of the tune, taking his guitar off sporadically to dance the “Meatstick,” leaving his bandmates confused and hanging, and effectively destroying the song’s jam, before capping the set with a charming rendition of “Tweezer reprise” with alternate “Meatstick” lyrics.

I’m not sure what it is, but there’s gotta be a way to do it — a way to strike that perfect balance of rehearsal and casualness, of playing a few shows versus playing a ton of shows, of continuing to develop (assuming Phish still want that). Maybe it means planning shows out in advance, rehearsing a specific bunch of older tunes, planning out new ones, or something else entirely. Whatever it is, hopefully Phish will return to Vermont, find it, and – with a new album under their arms – bring it back to the stage with them this coming June.

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